Laszlo Kubala – F.C. Barcelona’s Game Changer

HungaryBarcelona’s Camp Nou is one of sport’s great cathedrals. A staggering collection of footballing greats have graced its pitch in the blaugrana of F.C. Barcelona – Ramallets, Segarra, Kocsis, Rexach, Cruijff, Maradona, Stoichkov, Laudrup, Guardiola, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, a pair of Luis Suárezes and, of course, Messi. That’s quite the partial list.

Beyond the reaches of Barcelona lore, the building has hosted multiple European Cup finals, a pair of Cup Winners’ Cup finals, the 1992 Olympic football final, and five matches in the 1982 World Cup, including the tournament’s opener. It was here, in the spring of 1999, that Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjær authored the landmark Manchester United fairy tale, “That Magical Night in Barcelona”. This is hallowed turf.

And yet, for all of the greats that have walked its halls, for the massive on-field success enjoyed by its residents, and for Barcelona’s immense significance as a Catalan institution, a single statue sits outside the stadium: Ladislau Kubala Stecz – László Kubala as he is best known – was born in June 1927 in Budapest, Hungary, to working class parents of Polish, Slovakian and Hungarian roots. He joined the junior ranks of Ganz TE in 1939, at the age of 11. Soon after, he was competing, and holding his own against players three to five years older than he was. Kubala remained a youth player through 1943, before joining Ganz’s senior side in 1944, in Hungary’s third division. He’d make just nine senior appearances for the club, scoring two goals, before moving, at age 18, to Ferencváros. At the club from 1945 to 1946, Kubala, teamed up with another future Barcelonan, Sándor Kocsis, appeared in 49 games, and hit the net an impressive 27 times.

The prospect of mandatory military service drove Kubala to leave Hungary in 1946, at which point he moved to Czechoslovakia, where he joined ŠK Slovan Bratislava. Though he’d go on to feature as both an inside-right and an inside-forward later in his career he was deployed as a center forward in his time with Slovan Bratislava Between 1946 and 1948, he appeared 33 times for the club, netting 14 goals. His on-pitch exploits were far from his most important undertaking of this period, however. While in Czechoslovakia, he met Anna Viola Daučík, sister of Czechoslovakian national coach, and the man who would be Kubala’s coach at Barcelona, Ferdinand Daučík. László and Anna married in 1947. The next year, again, allegedly to avoid military service, Kubala returned to Hungary, joining Vasas SC. He stayed with Vasas through the end of 1948, suiting up 20 times and scoring 10 goals. At the start of 1949 Hungary became a socialist state, a development which prompted Kubala to once again flee his homeland, this time in the back of a truck that delivered him to the U.S zone of Allied-occupied Austria. From there, he’d relocate once again, to Italy, where he would play for Pro Patria.

Poster for the film made about Kubala’s escape from Hungary

In a life teeming with close calls and “what ifs”, a single decision in Kubala’s time in Italy played as big a role as any in the history of the game. Though he performed admirably in limited action for Pro Patria, scoring nine goals in 16 appearances, this fork in the cosmic road has nothing do with his work for the Lombardy-based club.

Kubala’s most recent defection had required him to leave behind not only his homeland, but also his wife, Anna, and their baby son, Branko, who were to meet him in Italy. Thanks to a miraculous trek by Anna across the Danube River, baby in tow, that’s exactly what they did – and not a moment too soon. In the spring of 1949, Kubala, still playing for Pro Patria, was invited to join one of the great sides in the history of club football, the iconic Il Grande Torino, for a testimonial match against Benfica in Portugal. Unsurprisingly, Kubala initially accepted the invitation, and would be flying to and from the game with the club. However, shortly before his planned departure, his wife and son – who was very ill at the time – arrived in Italy. Fortuitously, Kubala chose to stay in Italy with his family, as on May 4, 1949, Torino’s return flight from Portugal crashed into the hill of Superga, tragically killing all 31 of the plane’s passengers, including the entirety of the Il Grande Torino squad.

Laszlo Kubala, Pro Patria

In the meantime, the Hungarian Football Federation, with the backing of FIFA, had accused Kubala of breach of contract, leaving the country without permission, and a failure to perform military service. The allegations resulted in a one-year ban, imposed by FIFA. In response, at the start of 1950, Kubala, with Daučík as coach, formed Hungaria, a team made up of refugee footballers from Eastern Europe. That summer the team traveled to Spain to play a series of friendlies, against a Madrid XI, a Spain XI and RCD Espanyol. These represented half of the games which Kubala would play for the team. Vitally, those performances put him on the radars of representatives of Spain’s eternal rivals – Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu and F.C. Barcelona’s chief scout, Josep Samitier.

There are multiple accounts detailing the route by which Kubala’s signature wound up on a Barcelona contract. One version states that the star was duped into signing, on account of his somewhat severe intoxication at the time. Another version, incorporating the aforementioned intoxication, claims that Kubala was told he’d be taking a train to Madrid to sign his contract – only to be whisked to Catalunya without his knowledge. A more sane, though far less fun version states that Kubala presented a copy of the contract that Real Madrid were prepared to offer to Barcelona’s representatives, and demanded they matched it. Ultimately, whatever the methods employed in securing his signature, Kubala signed for Barcelona, and ushered in a spectacular and invigorating era that was much-needed in the aftermath of the saga that delivered the original galactico, Alfredo di Stefano, to Real Madrid.

Laszlo Kubala trains with Alfredo Di Stefano during Spain’s national team practice, 1958

Kubala joined Barcelona in 1950, though the aforementioned FIFA ban precluded him from taking part in competitive games until the following year. He played in friendly matches in the meantime, and made his return to meaningful action in the spring of 1951, in the two-legged semi-final of the Copa del Generalísimo (now the Copa del Rey), against Sevilla. Barcelona punched their ticket to the final via a 5-1 aggregate score line, thanks largely to a 3-0 second leg victory, which included a goal from their new leading man. Barça would breeze past Real Sociedad in final, 3-0, securing the first trophy of the Kubala era, and the first of three consecutive Copa del Generalísimo triumphs.

This was merely an indication of things to come. The following season, 1951-52, Kubala’s first full campaign with Barcelona, was an absolute joyride. In addition to once again capturing the Copa del Generalísimo, El Barça de les Cinc Copes secured the league title, along with the Latin Cup, the Copa Eva Duarte and the Copa Martini Rossi. Despite being limited to just 19 games, Kubala scored 26 goals, including a staggering seven-goal outburst in a 9-0 victory over Sporting Gijón.

Sadly, Kubala lost much of the following season, 1952-53, to tuberculosis. He did regain his health in time to help Barcelona to another trio of titles – the league, the Copa del Generalísimo and the Copa Eva Duarte. The following season, however, was something of an ebb in his career, not only because it was his first trophy-less campaign in Barcelona, but also because it marked the end of his close friend and brother-in-law, Ferdinand Daučík’s tenure at the club.

This did little to dampen enthusiasm, as Kubala’s impact on the Catalan capital extended far beyond his considerable (and, surely, also appreciated) contributions to the trophy cabinet. He was a sensation, a previously unseen combination of speed, strength, quickness, agility and skill. His unique combination of style and substance had the city mesmerized. A rock solid five-foot-nine frame allowed him to thrive in aggressive physical encounters and overpower defenders, while also possessing the ability to blow past opponents and finish spectacularly, both from open play as well as from free kicks, with a rocket launcher of a right foot. In fact, he is credited with pioneering the now-common technique of curling the ball over and around the defensive wall on free kicks.

So dramatic was his influence on the game-as-spectacle that Barcelona’s existing stadium, Les Corts, could no longer meet the demand to see his exploits firsthand. Les Corts, bear in mind, was no shoebox, itself boasting a seating capacity of 60,000. However, “Kubalamania” was unrelenting and, in 1954, construction began on a massive new ground. Capable of holding over 93,000 fans, Camp Nou first opened its doors in 1957, and remains the largest football stadium in Europe to this day. New York’s Yankee Stadium is often referred to as “The House That Ruth Built”, referring to the iconic status and cultural impact of Babe Ruth, the team’s headline superstar of the 1920s. It would thus not be unreasonable to dub Camp Nou “La casa que construyó László”.

A year after the opening of Camp Nou, following a stretch of four years in which Barcelona had only managed to win a single Copa del Generalísimo (1956-57), the club secured the services of an itinerant Argentinian disciplinarian, Helenio Herrera, and tasked him with reviving the club’s penchant for lifting silverware. He did just that. In Herrera’s two seasons at the helm, Barcelona captured two league titles, a pair of Inter-Cities Fairs Cups and the (1958-59) Copa del Generalísimo.

Where Herrera ran afoul of the regime was on the subject of discipline – he was for it. The coach demanded certain sacrifices from his players, including that they abstain from drinking and smoking. Though his logic was sound, and he had, in fact, delivered trophies to Camp Nou, this ideology ran counter to that of his megastar – and de facto King of Barcelona – for whom late nights of heavy-drinking and womanizing were standard procedure, and questioning of his lifestyle unwelcome.

Unsurprisingly the relationship quickly went south, devolving into an ongoing feud. This, along with Herrera’s own egomaniacal personality, and an attack against the coach in the street following a loss to Real Madrid in the semifinal of the 1960 European Cup – in which he’d dropped Kubala from the squad – combined to push Herrera toward the door, and he resigned his post.

Herrera’s departure coincided with the end of Kubala’s days as a top-tier player. The season after his nemesis’s exit, now entering his mid-thirties with knees ravaged by years of injury, Kubala summoned a final push in pursuit of the European Cup that had eluded both him and the club, setting up the goal in the semi-final that allowed Barcelona to avenge the previous season’s heartbreak at the hands of Real Madrid. Sadly, the magic would not extend to the final in Switzerland, as Kubala hit the post twice, but did not score, and Benfica emerged victorious.

Following the defeat, Kubala retired from the club he’d come to define over the previous decade. He spent the next handful of years turning out for Barcelona’s crosstown rivals, RCD Espanyol (alongside Alfredo di Stefano), as well as FC Zürich and the Toronto Falcons, before retiring in 1967.

Despite holding Hungarian, Czech and Spanish citizenship, and becoming the first player ever to suit up for national teams from three different countries, Kubala really had no international career to speak of. At a time when global acclaim was based largely on international play, he never played in the finals of a major international tournament. He scored four goals in six appearances for Czechoslovakia. He played three times for Hungary, but never lined up as part of the legendary Mighty Magyars. He scored 11 goals in 19 appearances for Spain, and was included in the squad for the 1962 World Cup but, along with Di Stéfano, missed the tournament due to injury.

Looking back, it can be said that politics and injury curbed a career that could have ranked among the very best in the history of the sport. However, that László Kubala’s circuitous route not only delivered him to Barcelona, but that he played a leading role in delivering 14 trophies to the club, that he turned out 357 times for the club and netted an incredible 281 goals – including 152 in 219 league games – and, most importantly, that he was a true superstar at a time when Barcelona most desperately needed one, and had a great time doing it? To a city and a fan base accustomed to raising the game to its highest elevation, and placing nearly as much value on aesthetics as on-field results, his legacy as an icon is set in stone. Bronze, actually, but you get the point.

Laszlo Kubala, Barcelona Soccer Team, 75th anniversary stamp from Equatorial Guinea

About The Author

A La Liga obsessive and Barcelona fan residing in New York, Emile Avanessian has contributed La Liga- and F.C. Barcelona-focused writing to BarcaBlaugranes, SB Nation’s FC Barcelona site, as well as BarcaBlog, the written arm of The Barcelona Podcast. He’s also spent more than a decade writing about NBA basketball, on his personal website, HardwoodHype, on Forum Blue & Gold about his beloved hometown Los Angeles Lakers, as well as on numerous team-specific sites, the Los Angeles Times website, Yahoo Sports and ESPN, among others. Emile also recently began contributing to Thunder Wire, a USA Today-affiliated site covering the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. Follow Emile on Twitter at @hardwoodhype

 

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